In 1947, Susan Hayward starred in two films produced by Walter Wanger. Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, a critical and popular success, scored her first Oscar nomination. The Lost Moment, based on a Henry James story, flopped in a big way; it was the real smash-up. No surprise that Hayward thereafter eschewed literary period items and concentrated on spunky heroines in gritty contemporary stories. The film’s failure may also explain why it’s the only film directed by Martin Gabel, who served as associate producer on the other film. It’s possible that we lost a very interesting director, as we can judge now that Gabel’s film is on DVD and Blu-Ray in a very good-looking print—these are lost moments, indeed.
Gabel is an actor best known for Broadway and marriage to Arlene Francis, a panelist on TV’s What’s My Line, on which he also appeared from time to time. He’d been a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Any Wellesian influence must be a matter of speculation, but The Lost Moment is provocative. The acting isn’t realistic but artificial and expressionistic, and the entire project has an uncanny, overheated, gothic atmosphere, with Daniele Amfiteathrof’s music unleashing eerie ghostly vocals as Hal Mohr’s high-contrast black-and-white camera glides richly around Alexander Golitzen’s lavishly decaying sets, all representing the claustrophobic Venice mansion of a spidery, 105-year-old spinster.
The story is told in flashback by Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings), a publisher who lies his way into the house to find the legendary letters of a vanished poet who loved the young Juliana. She’s now the sleepless crone who never leaves her room or her chair, but hears everything in the house, as if she has become the house. She’s played rather astonishingly by a withered and bent Agnes Moorehead (another Mercury alumnus) under liters of makeup, and we hardly ever get a good look at her, which only underlines the multiple mysteries of story and style. Also in the house is angry niece Tina (Hayward, who acts like she’s channeling Wanger’s wife, Joan Bennett), an outright looney tune who occasions wild revelations.
The fevered imaginings of Leonardo Bercovici’s script shares with James’ story little beyond the three-person set-up in Venice. Even the title is different, for James wrote The Aspern Papers, and this movie is about someone named Ashton. James’ story is an atmospheric but credible work of psychological realism, while this movie would lead anyone to imagine it must be another high-gothic Turn of the Screw. Where James’ ending is plausible and revealing, the film’s resolution combines literally overheated melodrama with lame Hollywoodisms, thereby just dodging the category “daft masterpiece” while remaining daft. Still, it manages to convey James’ fustian ambiguities even while departing from his narrative.
Bercovici was having a flurry of notable work. At the same time, he worked on the script of The Bishop’s Wife, from a Robert Nathan novel, and presumably this led to his adaptation (though not final script) of Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie, one of the era’s magnificent films. As David Thomson points out, it’s also about the grip of the past. Also at this time, Bercovici worked on another history-haunted melodrama, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, for another Welles legatee, director Norman Foster.
In freely adapting James’ novella, Bercovici redeemed the story’s masquerading scoundrel by splitting his role in twain and assigning his worst qualities to the other fellow (John Archer), who’s introduced literally in the same boat with Venable, or the same gondola, and then becomes his wicked shadow. Eduardo Ciannelli wanders through as a wise old priest, and there’s peculiar behavior from a sly, put-upon servant (Joan Lorring) and her dour mother (Minerva Urecal). It’s all splendidly unhealthy, and a product of that magical lost moment in Hollywood when the burgeoning style of film noir was colliding with women’s films and costumed thrillers.